The highlights that make Freddie Gibbs an intriguing artist are on You Only Live 2wice, but after the success of Pinata, the expectations are higher.
Freddie Gibbs has been nothing if not prolific. He’s released, by my count, 11 mixtapes, EPs, and LPs since 2009. From that group, one release has been classic-worthy (Pinata), two have been good (BFK and Cold Day in Hell), and the rest have ranged from fine (Shadow of a Doubt) to bad (ESGN). That left the prospects for his latest release, You Only Live 2wice, hazy.
The key factors that tipped those projects into their respective buckets are thematic cohesion and general creative judgement. The thematic cohesion issue is workable. All high-caliber artists struggle to consistently make albums that are greater than the sum of their parts.
The creative judgement matter is more disappointing. ESGN, for example, was a posse album with a posse comprised of sub-Soundcloud-tier rappers. Instead of a fun, energetic atmosphere, the album felt like a funeral in an abandoned business park. It’s harsh because it’s real – the traverse between the highs and lows of the Gibbs discography is smaller than infinity but greater than Kid Cudi’s.
As a Freddie Gibbs stan/apologist, it’s with some disappointment I say You Only Live 2wice splits the difference and lands firmly in the middle of his discography. The successes are noteworthy, but the failures are predictable.
For You Only Live 2wice, Gibbs was working with heavily traumatic material. In June 2016, Gibbs was arrested while on tour in France on charges of an alleged rape committed in Austria. While eventually cleared of all charges in late September of the same year, Gibbs made it clear his time in foreign prison was life-altering. Strangely, though, much of the album avoids the topic entirely.
The heights of the album come at the open and close when Gibbs takes the plunge and confronts his time in prison on “Crushed Glass” and “Homesick”. There’s an insightful and painful merging of intimate and global when he compares the international injustice of the prison system to the slave trade on the former, and when he grapples with his old lifestyle upon his release from prison on the latter.
Not all deviations from that central theme are worthless, though. The excellent album opener “20 Karat Jesus” strikes a balance between Gibb’s trap sound and his golden era renaissance with Madlib on Pinata, courtesy of a beat switch halfway through the song. It’s a particularly potent showcase of how Gibbs can rap technically well on any beat but really shines over soul.
A-plus production isn’t a cure-all for Gibbs, though. The song “Alexys”, produced by Kaytranada and BADBADNOTGOOD, is a gem on paper. The sojourns into soul Gibbs has excelled at make a venture into jazz and funk sound appealing. Unfortunately, the two predictable verses about drug dealing make the song ring hollow. There’s nothing here that he hasn’t done better in at least a dozen other songs. When you factor in his traditional Achilles’ heel of a deeply unsatisfying half-rapped, half-sung chorus, you’re left with a wholly unnecessary song.
Too many of the eight songs on You Only Live 2wice fall into the humorless safe zone that “Alexys” represents. “Dear Maria” covers Gibbs expressing his regrets to an old lover, and “Amnesia” is about having so much money and so many women that he gets amnesia. The middle third of the album is an absolute slog, which really makes the album more appealing as a collection of singles than a cohesive whole.
Gibbs frantically wrote most of 2wice while imprisoned, so maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that the album feels rushed and too full of fluff (and fluff, here, is anything but fluffy). Apparently, Gibbs wrote plenty more material in that time. Here’s hoping that for his next release, he takes a more patient approach and culls only the best of his collection. The highlights that make Gibbs an intriguing artist are here, but after the heights of Pinata, the baseline should be higher.